Our sages tell us that the month of Elul, the month which precedes Rosh Hashana, is meant as a preliminary time, during which we are supposed to prepare ourselves for the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days.
Why do we need preparation? Well, if all that we want to do is show up for services and (hopefully) enjoy them, then we probably don't need to prepare. At least, not very much. But, just showing up isn't the point of these holy days. The point of these holy days is to have a deeply meaningful experience which transforms us. The point is to emerge from this time as a better person than we were when we entered it.
That's not easy to do. It's easy to talk about, and it's easy to want to do, but those are different things. But, actually making changes in our lives, and ourselves, is difficult. It takes effort and concentration. It takes a willingness to seriously evaluate ourselves, and to be honest with ourselves about our faults and failings. It takes a willingness to look inward in a way which will make us uncomfortable.
One of my teachers once taught me that, in a synagogue, the first step to making a change is to make people uncomfortable with the status quo. That's not just true for institutions. That's true for us, too. The first step to making a change is to find those things which need to be changed, and convince yourselves that they really do need to be changed.
That's why the rabbis of old mandated that the month of Elul is a time of Cheshbon HaNefesh, literally translated as “an accounting of the soul.” We're supposed to spend time, every day, looking inward, and being honest with what we see. Thinking back over our deeds from this past year, and not glossing over the ones of which we've aren't so proud.
And, then the hard work really begins. Because everything we can think of that we've done, which we shouldn't have (and which our ancestors would have called “a sin”) we have to atone for. We have to find the person we've wronged. We have to apologize—an actual, specific apology, not a wishy-washy “I'm sorry if I hurt you.” And, if appropriate, we have to make restitution. Only then do we have any right to go to God and ask for forgiveness.
I'm not sure how many of us actually do this. I wonder how many people in our community really spend the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah regularly turning inward, identifying and remembering our failings, and especially going to the people we've hurt, and asking for forgiveness. But, imagine if we did. Imagine if Rosh Hashanah wasn't just another day with a long service, but was the culmination of months of serious, intense, often painful personal, spiritual work. Imagine how much more meaningful would be to stand before God, to stand with our community, if we had really done that.
I promise you—it won't be easy. An athlete, even a very good one, who wants to run a marathon doesn't show up on race day without having prepared, and then expect to win. Anything worth doing takes preparation, and that preparation is almost always hard.
But worth it.
Elul begins at sundown, August 30th.